What are non-fuel cycle radioactive materials?

Nuclear power is not the only industry which relies on the transport of radioactive materials. Because radiation can penetrate matter, radioactivity and radioactive materials have many uses in medicine, agriculture, industry, mining and oil exploration, and research.

Applications include:

  • Agriculture, where radioisotopes play an important role in the growing of crops and breeding of livestock, and large radioactive sources are used for sterilisation in the food industry. For sterilisation purposes, products can be irradiated after they are packaged and boxed which reduces the chance of products becoming re-contaminated.
  • Industry, where there are a variety of uses ranging from the use of radio-isotopes in steel plants and paper mills, to the use of radioactive materials in consumer products such as smoke detectors and luminous watches. In industry, sealed radioactive sources are used in gauges that measure the unevenness of asphalt during road paving. Sealed sources are also used in gamma radiography to check pipe welds. The source is placed inside the pipe at point of weld and when the source is removed from its protective shielding by remote control, radiation will pass through the pipe and onto special film (radiograph). Faults in the weld will be visible on the radiograph once it is developed.
  • Medicine, where radioactive chemical tracers provide diagnostic information and radiotherapy uses radio-isotopes in the treatment of illness. In addition,  more powerful gamma sources such as Cobalt-60 are used to sterilise equipment and bandages.  In fact, 40% of the world’s medical disposables and devices (from swabs and syringes to hip joints and heart valves) are sterilised by Cobalt-60. This includes, bandages, sutures and an estimated 80% of all surgeons’ gloves. Certain biological products can only be sterilised using this form of sterilisation, notably serums and plasma, and sealed medical devices such as those used in endoscopic procedures. Cobalt-60 is used every day to deliver some 45,000 cancer treatments in 50 countries. The effectiveness of cobalt-60 is due to its radioactivity – the energy it gives off. To treat cancer, a beam of radiation can be directly aimed at a certain tumours thus minimising exposure of normal, healthy cells. Similar to receiving a dental x-ray, such uses do not make the individual, or material, radioactive. These gamma sources are manufactured in very few countries and sea transport is therefore vital to distribute them from the manufacturers to several hundred users worldwide.